Mike Murphy Revisited. Joe Jackson.
The day Mike Murphy dies RTE probably will broadcast, yet again, that fabulously funny clip of him provoking Gay Byrne into saying, “f*** off!” in the grounds of Trinity College. But if that’s all Murphy is remembered for, by the public, this really will be a pitiful case of reductio ad absurdum.
It also would validate my long-time contention – from 1989-2000, I was a Pop Music/Culture correspondent on his radio programme, The Arts Show – that he is a multi-dimensional man with a one dimensional media image.
There are, for example, tabloid stereotypes. ‘Murphy: Song and Dance Man,’ or, ‘I Tried To Kill My Father says Mike Murphy,’ and ‘My Marriage Split Nightmare.’ That’s why, when I first interviewed Mike, in 2000, I tried to flesh out these stereotypes, probe into the psyche of this most private man.
However, on the morning after we did the interview, Murphey phoned me, wondered aloud if “we should pull the article” and said, “You can run it after I die.” Mike still believed, as he had said a day earlier, that I’d gotten his “first, truly in-depth, interview” but now he was afraid that it was “too damn revealing” and might “ needlessly hurt” certain members of his family.
Fortunately, he then changed his mind and the article was published. But tellingly, after this interview he expressed similar concerns. “Do me a favour, “ he said as I left his Dublin home, “Don’t over-emphasise the family stuff, particularly those things I said, in my book, [Mike and Me, his 1996 memoir] about my mother and father, which I really regret saying.”
That said Mike knew that this time round we had taken a revisionist tilt on his book, our first interview and his life in general. So, let’s kick off with a few key quotes he gave me in 2000. At the time, Murphey was retiring from TV and The Arts Show – it was described by this newspaper as, ‘probably the most important single outlet for coverage of the Arts in Ireland’ – and made some mercilessly accurate comments that still apply to Arts coverage.
“I like Glenn [Patterson] as a writer but the show [The Black Box, RTE] was pretentious, supercilious and all-knowing. This was painfully obvious when I heard him and his guests discuss, ‘the otherness of the otherness’ or whatever. It was the kind of language that perpetrates the notion that the Arts still belong to an elite group of people, and not to the public in general.”
Mike was similarly scathing about Later With John Kelly, which has since mutated into The View and The Works. He said, it “had a static look and there was a danger of an in-crowd being used over and over and that, in itself is elitist. And it rarely went outside the Pale for its subjects or guests.”
Last year Mike likewise attacked RTE’s decision to relegate Masterpiece: Ireland’s Favourite Painting, which he presented, to a 10.15 pm transmission time. In a letter to The Irish Times, he said this decision was a product of the, ‘Cromweillian edict of Arts programming being banished to the Connacht of broadcasting, i.e., at, or past, most peoples’ bedtime.’
“I stand over what I said,” he adds, now. “They do not treat the Arts as they should. Many individuals [in RTE] have said, ‘You were dead right.’ There is a troglodytic influence somewhere in the scheduling area of RTE and I resent the fact that the Arts are relegated to where they are. I also stand over my criticism of Arts shows where presenters are lugubrious, and seem to languish in their own elitism, which is a turn off for general audiences.”
Murphy also recalls that when The Arts Show moved from seven pm to an afternoon slot on Radio 1, it “greatly increased its audience.” Then he adds, light-heartedly, “And The Arts Show would be a damn sight better than Derek Mooney!” But isn’t Mike afraid that Big Brother, or Big Sister, in RTE, will say, in response to such criticisms, “Tell Murphy to do what Gay told him to do in Trinity! We’ll make sure he never works in RTE again”?
“Bob Collins [former DG of RTE, now Chairman of the BAI] said to me, recently, ‘why are you having a go at the organisation?’” Mike responds. “I said, ‘I’m not part of the organisation.’ But I also said that the organisation should be big enough, big-hearted enough, and resilient enough to withstand such criticisms. I don’t fear they will say, ‘He’ll never work here again’.”
Then, as if throwing down a gauntlet to RTE, Murphy says he’d like to do a, “series on 20th century art in Ireland!” But he knows there are those in the world of the Arts who, during his tenure hosting The Arts Show, in described him as ‘a marshmallow,’ meaning, lamebrain, and might still feel that he is.
“The first thing I’d say to that is that I think I took the equivalent of three College Degree course while presenting the programme!” he says, laughing. “But I do remember Paddy Woodworth, the Arts Editor of The Irish Times, in fact, being really patronising with me. “And Colm Toibin, John Boland had a go at me. But I understood why some were saying, ‘he is a lightweight coming in to deal with the Arts.’ Yet, I believed that people were more interested in the Arts than they themselves knew. They listened to music, went to movies, read popular fiction. Those are the Arts. Whereas, before that, the Arts was: antiques, classical music, and you had exclusivity, people who wanted to impress other people by indulging in these areas. I wanted to bring the whole lot together, namely, the ‘Popular Arts’ and ‘High Art’.”
All of which has “come to pass” notes Murphy, who also, while stressing he is a “man without ego in this sense” suggests that The Arts Show, “played a small, but considerable, part, in this change.” And he is right.
In contrast with his lightweight ‘Mr. Marshmallow’ label, Mike Murphy also happens to be, or at least was, for a long period of his life, a tangle of Hamlet-like shadows. In Mike and Me, for example, he admits he once threw a knife at his father during a row they were having and wanted him dead.
“Did I really want him dead? I don’t know that I did,” Mike further reflected during our first interview in 2000. Even so, when I suggested that his tendency as a teenager to, as he said in the book, ‘sing along’ with ‘all his heart and pent up emotions’ to the first records he owned, such as, suitably enough, Heartbreak Hotel, was a way of discharging familial shadows and of “defying” his father’s ‘oppressive silence,’ he agreed.
“Never did tell anyone,” Mike said before adding that this silence also applied to his role in terms of breaking up family rows, his father’s fondness for drink and to throwing a knife at him. “But my father – God rest him – and mother did not have a happy marriage. And my father was one of those silent types. It was distressing for me. Those record were a form of release.”
Thirteen years later, he elaborates.
“But, now, I often think about my late father and mother and wish I had more time with both, particularly my father, and that we’d had proper conversations. We never had even one real conversation. But at the time, men weren’t able to communicate their feelings; they just went out to work. That was their role. But he must have felt it terribly, the gap between himself and myself. But I turned against him early on. I took my mother’s side.”
One reason being that she treated Mike “as a surrogate husband” in the sense that, as the eldest song, he was “the one she would talk to.” This left him with “a range of feelings in relation to” his mother. But Murphy rejects one claim he made in his memoir, and repeated on The Late Late Show.
“I said if there is a hereafter I wouldn’t want to meet either of them. That now, is not how I feel now. In fact, if there is a hereafter maybe that’s where we could have all the conversations we never had! But the point is
when I wrote that book, I was going through a marriage break up, difficult times and I’d hate to leave people with the feeling that my father was not a nice man. I was horrified when I saw the knife-story headline, ‘I Tried To Kill My Father.’ I was responsible. I put that in the book. The poor man didn’t deserve that. Had I exercised proper judgment I wouldn’t have written the book, at that time. It was the wrong time, and the wrong thing, to do.”
Mike also acknowledges he made a mistake writing that memoir “purely for the money.” But this he did, in part, because, believing he was responsible for the break up of his first marriage to Eileen Murphy – “I was! I fell in love with another woman!” he says, referring to his current wife, Ann Walsh – he gave her “much of what” he owned and “had to start again.”
But falling in love with Ann was not the only cause of the break up of Mike’s first marriage. During our last interview, he also cited as a reason the fact that he and Eileen “married very, very young” during their early 20’s, and “grew apart.” Similarly, Murphy agreed that the “Cheery Mike” persona he often projected at home – meaning, the suppression of his “I’m down, I’m hurt, let’s talk about it” self vis-à-vis his children” – was itself a damaging silence, of sorts, not unlike the silence he encountered as a child.
“I still think that is true,” he says. “I was trying to hard not to replicate the shadows I’d known at home. I also became a workaholic, another mistake. I didn’t give my children the time or advice I should have, apart from not confiding in them. I regret all that very much. At night, when I lie in bed, looking back on my life, that’s the kind of thing troubles my conscience.”
With equally remarkable candour, Mike also admits he probably was “a callow youth who got married young, and didn’t know how to be a husband, a father, or a fully rounded person” until his “middle years.”
Is his relationship with Ann, still, ‘low-key, exclusive, interesting, loving, and, most of all, fulfilling,’ as he summed it up succinctly in his book?
“Yes and I have no comment to add to that! But it’s a good quote, isn’t it?”
And, so, overall, Mike Murphy is “very happy” these days. But, in the end, he does hope that he isn’t remembered merely as, “The guy who got Gay to say “f** off!” He’s pretty adamant about that, in fact.
“Actually, Gay says he hopes that’s not what I am remembered for!” he says. “And I, myself, wouldn’t like it. I’m not that pushed about what legacy I leave behind but I wouldn’t like it to be, ‘he was a character, wasn’t he?’ and for, Candid Camera. There was far more to my career, and to my life.”